Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The "Swiftboating" of Human Rights Watch

By Daniel Levy

Last week witnessed a concerted attack against the credibility of the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW), seeking to link supposed fundraising activities in Saudi Arabia with that organization’s criticism (“bias”, according to its detractors) of Israeli practices in the occupied territories, also claiming HRW is soft peddling on Saudi violations. It started in a Wall Street Journal piece, the Israeli prime minister’s office and spokespeople weighed in, and then AIPAC and the rightwing blogosphere got onboard. The attack on HRW has now been ratcheted up according to today’s Jerusalem Post.

The former right-wing Israeli Government Minister, Natan Sharansky (also an ex-Prisoner of Zion, President George W. Bush’s favorite author and occupation apologist) claims that HRW “has become a tool in the hands of dictatorial regimes to fight against democracies.” Ron Dermer, director of policy planning in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office adds: “We are going to dedicate time and manpower to combating these groups; we are not going to be sitting ducks in a pond for the human rights groups to shoot at us with impunity".

The apparent trigger for this assault on a group that represents the global gold standard in human rights monitoring, analysis, and advocacy, was a visit by HRW’s Middle East-North Africa director, Sarah Leah Whitson, to the Saudi kingdom. I happened to find myself on a panel at The Century Foundation discussing the Middle East with Whitson just days before this storm broke—I went back and watched tapes of that panel discussion. To accuse Whitson of being soft on the Saudis or somehow singling out Israel for criticism is quite astonishing as I’m sure you’ll agree if you take ten minutes to listen to her presentation—of that, more in a moment.

According to reports Whitson was hosted one evening in Riyadh by prominent businessman and intellectual, Emad bin Jameel Al-Hejailan, for a private dinner which included business leaders, civil society leaders, and well-connected Saudis. It was not a fundraising event. HRW was certainly not fundraising from the Saudi government. Spencer Ackerman of The Washington Independent quotes Whitson—“We have never raised any money from the Saudi government or any other agency in the world.” That HRW does not take government money is something that is already well-known.

HRW does, of course, receive contributions from individuals and foundations—something that does not prevent them from producing releases and reports critical of the states from whence donors hail.

Does HRW’s fundraising from private sources in the US prevent it being critical of American human rights violations (and I obviously acknowledge the differences between the US and Saudi Arabia)? Apparently not. Yes, donors have agendas, but as long as the organization adheres to standards of fact-checking and objectivity, its credibility is sustained.

Sadly, these attacks on HRW demonstrate no such objectivity or credibility—they come from a narrow and misguided right-wing Israel advocacy agenda. One group that has been plowing this terrain for some years is Gerald Steinberg’s odiously named “NGO Monitor,” in the attacks on HRW he is being joined by bigger guns. Steinberg accuses HRW of being “linked to the terrorist campaign” (of Hamas …etc), and whines that "Human Rights Watch is an organization with a budget of $40 million a year; they are a superpower”. Poor Mr. Steinberg, his supporters in the anti-HRW campaign over at AIPAC only had an “$80 million purse” at their disposal.

Ms. Whitson at HRW is not rolling over, this was her response: "Please, if there is something we got wrong, if one of the incidents or attacks we described is wrong, I would love to hear it. Because the Gerald Steinbergs of this world, and I guess now the Sharanskys of this world, love to give blanket denials, love to give blanket dismissals. But let's get down to the facts and let me know, did we get the fact wrong on any of these cases."

Whitson had also been accused of using HRW’s criticism of Israel and the hits that it takes on that score in order to curry favor with potential Saudi backers. According to reports, Whitson discussed HRW’s work on both Saudi practices and on the Israeli occupied territories among other issues. Jeffrey Goldberg in his Atlantic blog shares a thoughtful exchange on this with the executive director of HRW, Ken Roth.

I would suggest that Human Rights Watch is not at fault here, but rather those whose agenda is to smear its good name. The event held in Riyadh that has come under scrutiny is undoubtedly replicated by HRW in similar venues around the world and is crucial to their work in sensitizing elites—especially in countries where violations occur—to a broad human rights agenda, including its applicability to the venue in question.

The most perfunctory fact-checking debunks the claim of HRW having an anti-Israel obsession as being patently absurd. As Ali Gharib of IPS has pointed out, of more than 30 releases in June and July (so far) about the region, Israel was criticized three times, Saudi Arabia five times, and Iran on nine occasions.

And here’s how cuddling up to the Saudis and perhaps even seeking private Saudi money led to self-censorship by Sarah Leah Whitson in her criticism of Saudi Arabia at that TCF event: Whitson attacked the lack of due process in the recent Saudi terror trials. She described Saudi Arabia, along with Syria and Libya, as being on the less free side in terms of “the most basic human rights” violations in the region. She attacked Saudi Arabia’s lack of a penal code, and Whitson had this to say about women’s rights in the kingdom: “Saudi Arabia is the absolute worst. Women are treated as legal minor, as children.” Two of HRW’s recent releases are about women’s rights and domestic worker abuses in the kingdom.

So, why this coordinated attack on HRW all of a sudden? It pains me to say it, but this is all about Israel. The Israeli prime minister’s office was shameless enough to announce that it has decided to wage a battle with human rights NGOs and started with Human Rights Watch. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s spokesman, Mark Regev, (apparently without irony) accused HRW of having “seriously lost its moral compass.”

AIPAC then promoted the attack on HRW. The timing is not a coincidence. Human Rights Watch, similar to other global, respected human rights NGOs, obviously follows developments in the occupied Palestinian territories and obviously had something to say about Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead” in Gaza six months ago. Their recent Gaza report focused on the use or, rather, misuse of drones during these military attacks. Amnesty International has been similarly critical of the use of drones, asserting that Israeli forces did not employ insufficient care in preventing civilian casualties.

Or maybe, just maybe, something troubling from a human rights perspective might be taking place in Gaza and the rest of the occupied territories. This is a case of “shoot the messenger” on steroids. What happened to Gaza during Operation Cast Lead is being revealed not only by international sources, but also by Israeli sources, including this latest report from Israeli combat soldiers of the Breaking the Silence group, a collection of testimonies by Israeli combatants who served in Gaza.

Unfortunately, Israel did not—as was recommended by Israeli human rights groups including B’tselem—conduct its own credible state inquiry into the GazaIsrael has sent the signal to the international community, and notably to the human rights NGO community, that it will not do the job - that they will have to. events. By leaving the Israeli Defense Forces to conduct their own cursory, closed, and, ultimately, not credible investigation,

The logic of Israel’s continued occupation is such that the steps Israel is taking to maintain and entrench its presence in the territories are leading to ever-greater human rights violations. Often these practices are exposed, obviously human rights’ NGO’s do a lot of that exposing. In that context, one can expect the attacks on the human rights community to be ratcheted up. As Matt Yglesias has pointed out, there is “an increasing tendency by the Israeli government and by hawkish Jewish organizations to respond to criticism of Israel’s human rights record by lashing out against human rights groups.”

Attempts to defend the indefensible do not make for pretty viewing, even when beloved Israel is the subject (for another example see The Israel Project’s recent defense of settlements in the West Bank). Surely, one can both be a supporter of Israel and it’s security while at the same time, defending human rights by, for instance, advocating an end to the conflict, a two-state solution, and an end to the occupation. Surely, supporting Israel cannot be about undermining efforts to advance human rights around the world. That is not just fundamentally wrong, it strikes me as being fundamentally un-Jewish, and goes beyond the pale of what is legitimate or ethical.


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